Signs

On a recent trip to the UK, I saw a roadsign that made me stop and think:

Roadsign: Changed priorities ahead

I like signs and symbols to which I can attach unexpected meaning. I remember visiting a friend who was spending a year in a religious community, and getting into theological and philosophical discussions, as one does. I had brought up the Desert Fathers quote “Remain in your cell, and your cell will teach you all things.” I think that in its original context, this was an old monk’s answer to a young monk who had asked him where he could go to find wisdom. I claimed that such sayings were still applicable; my friend thought they applied only in their original context.

On my way home from that visit, I got lost in the road network of the large city the community was in; there were no longer any streetsigns directing me towards the motorway home. I pulled up at a Sikh-run petrol station, and asked the serious-looking grey-bearded turbanned guy in the shop. He replied “Continue the way you are going. There will be signs.” I could hardly have hoped to find a better re-purposable statement, nor to have found it with such apposite timing. And he was right; there were signs along the way I was going, both literally and, over the next couple of years, metaphorically.

Anyway, on to this specific dual-purpose sign. I’m naturally the kind of person who sits in silence and isolation tinkering on projects. I invent all kinds of things, including, so to speak, the wheel. I should probably get more connected to the rest of the hacker community. I might be involved in setting up a new hackerspace soon (although I may well have to move very soon after, as I’m near the end of a contract and might have to move to get work). And there are mailing lists I could sign up to, but I’ve been flooded by mailing lists in the past. I might try using Gnus to access them (an Emacs facility for Usenet access, that can also have mailing lists diverted into it).

But measures like that would only get me involved in a community of like-minded people from similar backgrounds (i.e. fairly “privileged”). I should probably also look at some kind of wider community involvement, and that seems much scarier. It’s not the way my natural inclinations are, and I may find that I’m not very good at it. Some people seem to think it’s a moral obligation; I’m not sure about that, but it would seem right to at least try it. My first steps that way will probably be to contact a group working with immigrants (after all, I myself was an economic migrant of sorts from the UK to Ireland!).

In fact, as I’m a classic introvert (and heavily INTJ in the MBTI) heavily community-oriented things can be pretty scary for me, all the more so when there’s a hint that, morally, I `should’ be doing them. And it reaches its worst when the community is full of classic extravert people who can’t grasp the idea of interaction being draining and peace and quiet being nourishing. The most intense form of this that I routinely encounter is parish churches. For me, a church is a place for prayer, and a service is time for prayer; for many, it seems that these are a place and a time to pick up signs of being wanted… even if you have to use the fact that people are expected to be on best behavour as a way to extract such signs from people who’d rather concentrate on God.

For a long time, I’ve been reflecting on these matters. From talking to a priest friend, I’ve picked up the impression that the assumption is that everyone needs constant affirmation, and that all contact is assumed to be affirmation. Now, for an outlier like myself, human contact isn’t necessarily very affirming, because I don’t always do things the standard way, because I don’t always think things the standard way, and human contact often says “Why can’t you be like everyone else [you freak]?”. As I get older, I gradually learn more about quite how unimaginably strong the drive to be like others is, for so much of the population. It would have made my younger life much less stressful to have understood this earlier. Reading Paul Graham’s essay Why Nerds are Unpopular was a big step forward in understanding, as was finding Dąbrowski’s theory of Positive Disintegration with its description of people who live at Level 1.

My feelings of awkwardness in the wider community have to be set against the fact that I have many, very solid, friendships. I think that at last I’ve teased out the difference between the two, and it turns out to be quite simple (and probably was obvious even before I realized that it was this particular difference): that my real relationships with my real friends are formed not only in the presence of strong shared interests and characteristics, but in the absence of a specific purpose. In contrast, when my priest friend implies that I `should’ interact in certain ways with certain people, it’s because those people are looking to get something (affirmation, or signs that they can imagine represent relationship) from my actions towards them. But for me, as an introvert and so not getting anything from these interactions but finding them somewhat draining, I cannot relate sincerely to someone for whom and act of relating has a specification. Sure, I can perform actions towards someone to alleviate their feelings of loneliness or inadequacy or whatever it is they want alleviated by someone talking with them, but to me that’s not the foundations of a friendship, it’s more like an amateur attempt at a professional rôle.

So, ironically, I turn out not to seem able to help those who are most desparate for `help’ — those who’re prepared to try to corner someone into friendship. Perhaps I should just accept that that’s not my rôle in life.

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